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Paying homage to history

by Media Xpose

The SAAO (South African Astronomical Observatory) in Cape Town gained National Heritage status in 2018, prompting a renewed focus on preserving its rich cultural, natural, and built landscape. Affecting the refurbishment of an existing heritage worthy pump station building into a new Visitor Centre for the SAAO, SALT architects uncovers and showcases the site’s layered meanings.

Images: Robyn Walker & JD van der Walt

Site info

Located at the confluence of the Liesbeeck and Black Rivers, the site holds historical significance as a boundary between the VOC’s Free Burghers and the Khoi pastoralists during the 17th Century.

The existing building on the site earmarked for renovation, was a Victorian pump house, originally used for pumping water from the weir in the Liesbeeck River for irrigation purposes. Over time, it has undergone various renovations and transformations, serving as a workshop, an educational centre, and in part most recently, as an auditorium.

Project brief

The client’s brief requested proposals for transforming the existing Victorian era pump house into a visitor centre for the SAAO. Programmatic requirements included the provision of sufficient ablution facilities, a reception area, varying exhibitions spaces, and a dedicated room for housing an observation instrument known as a heliostat.

The brief also required general maintenance of the building, which along with the renovation, needed to be executed within a limited budget.

Uncovering and showcasing the site’s layered meanings

The building, categorized as a grade 3C heritage building was carefully analysed in the first stages of the process, informing design decisions within the following main principles:

  1. Heritage implications: The oldest and more significant portions of the building were approached in a delicate manner, yet with enough targeted intervention to ensure the long-term use of the building. A clear example of this can be seen in the roofscape where internal gutters were reduced to necessity, thereby minimizing possible leakage points and water damage to the building.
  2. Functional and daily use as a form of preservation: The successful adaptive re-use of this building was to ensure its use on a daily basis. Hereby allowing maintenance items to be addressed sooner in future.
  3. New additions clearly articulated from the old: Where new items were added, we wanted to articulate them in a contemporary manner; being honest to the current building methods and adding to the philosophy of documenting the layers of history. In this case, historical re-representation was avoided, yet design principles such as scale and proportion informed by the existing were applied to make the new additions read as a coherent part of the whole.
  4. Limited demolition: Demolition was targeted at non-original portions of the building, to enhance spatial experience, emphasize the original structure and establish a more open plan for programmatic requirements. The former demolished items are hinted at and can be “read” in the building with expressions of the old positions of walls in the floor and wall detailing.
  5. Visibility from pedestrian approach: The budget was managed in relation to the visibility of areas from the pedestrian approach. Here for instance, the room housing the heliostat on the eastern flank of the building is given more attention than the later addition largely hidden from view in the northwestern corner.
  6. Budgetary constraints: Considering the budgetary constraints of the project, the most prominent areas, and areas difficult to change in future were addressed first and foremost.
  7. Landscaping: Landscaping is focused on the main access route, establishing a clear axis with what was the original main entrance of the building. This entrance is re-instated as the main entry point, thereby giving preference of the old over the new.

Paying homage to the former workings of the building

The approach to the building is established along a newly landscaped axis that guides visitors directly to the original front door of the Victorian era building. Upon entering the space, one experiences the volume and intricacy of the main pitched roof with restored exposed rafters.

The reception area with a bespoke desk and detailed timber ceiling welcomes visitors into the experience. Per introduction to the exhibition space, the original pump equipment is exhibited in the corner, paying homage to the former workings of the building.

A bespoke perforated aluminium ceiling animates the interior space above one’s head, igniting visitor’s intrigue in the wonders of the universe. This captivating aluminium piece faithfully recreated the night sky, adorned with indigenous Kora (!Ora) constellations inspired by the works of Bleek and Lloyd from 1874.

Visitors move through the exhibition space to a dark room that houses a heliostat on a new concrete roof. This observation instrument tracks the sun’s movement and reflects its rays onto an interactive central table. The eastern wing acts as another space to host rotating exhibits.

Product Selection
• Spruce beams: Universal plywood (WWW.universalply.com)
• Custom Steel: window reveals, new spouts, gutter profile (combination of replicating old profile and new detail). Boshard & benchmark Construction Joint Venture
• Joinery: Homecor Joiners
• Aluminium perforated ceiling: collaboration between client, ORMS (printing) and Picture Hanging Pros (installer)

Project Team
SALT Architects – Architects
AVCON Structural Engineers – Structural Engineers
Boshard Construction & Benchmark Builders Joint
Venture – Building Contractor


Site Info
Project size: 168m2
Project Budget: R2 186 875
Timeline: June 2019 – December 2021
Location: South African Astronomical Observatory,
Observatory, Cape Town

An immersive experience

Contemporary interventions to the exterior approach of the building include three new windows for natural light. Two of these inserted where a garage door used to be. These windows are similar in proportion to the original openings in the building, but are expressed in a contemporary manner with deep, but thin steel frames that form internal seating in the waiting area.

A newly introduced Laterite pathway guides visitors from the visitor’s centre to the rest of the site. A restored derelict bathroom block along the path celebrates its status as a formed ruin. The bathroom block was renovated by addition of a brick detail and new roof.

By restoring the pumphouse and incorporating new elements, the project aims to contribute to the understanding of the site’s historical, cultural, and natural heritage. The SAAO’s visitor’s centre offers an immersive experience, inviting visitors to explore its diverse meanings and engage with its captivating past.

SALT Architects is a design studio based in Cape Town, pursuing imagination, humility and commitment as core values, toward innovating meaningful possibilities. We are committed to designing memorable buildings delivered through effective project management.


Insta @saltarchitects
W www.saltarchitects.co.za

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